"Our goal is two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side, in peace and security." So spoke President Bush at a Middle East summit on June 4. Then, despite the jump in violence over the next 10 days, leaving 63 dead, he reiterated on Sunday his

"Our goal is two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side, in peace and security." So spoke President Bush at a Middle East summit on June 4. Then, despite the jump in violence over the next 10 days, leaving 63 dead, he reiterated on Sunday his belief in "a peaceful Palestinian state, living side by side with the Israelis," though now adding "we've got a lot of work to do."

Bush's goal may appear to be just another diplomatic twist in the half-century search for an Arab-Israeli resolution. But it is much more. Indeed, it could well be the most surprising and daring step of his presidency. Here's why:

It is surprising, first, because he largely stayed away from this issue during his first two years as president. To be sure, he met with Middle East leaders, made speeches and rapped some knuckles - but his general approach was to stand aloof and let Palestinians and Israelis sort out their mess on their own. Then, in recent weeks, Arab-Israeli diplomacy moved very quickly from the periphery to the center, becoming as high a priority as it had ever been under prior administrations, perhaps even higher.

Second, the president in late 2001 surprised observers by adopting the idea that the creation of a Palestinian state would solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, a policy no U.S. government has proposed since 1947, before the State of Israel had come into existence.

Third, this policy did not emerge from the usual process of consensus-building of White House aides brainstorming, State Department proposals, think tank studies and congressional initiatives. Rather, it reflects the president's personal vision.

Fourth, aiming to create a Palestinian state is surprising because it turns the domestic calculus upside-down. The "right and the left have both switched their opinion of Bush," observes Jonathan Tobin in the Philadelphia Exponent. Exactly so: Conservatives who were applauding the president's demand for Palestinian democracy now fret about the impact of a Palestinian state on Israel's security. Conversely, liberals not usually counted among his supporters now enthusiastically endorse the goal of a Palestinian state.

Finally, Bush threw out the rulebook for American mediators in Arab-Israeli diplomacy.

Rules of thumb he is ignoring include:

  • Don't pre-judge the final status. Presidents usually content themselves with vague intentions, leaving it to the combatants to decide on the specifics; "the time has come to put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict," for example, was how vaguely George H. W. Bush expressed his plans in 1991.
  • Don't try to impose a settlement. Not since the failed Vance-Gromyko discussions in 1977 has the U.S. government proposed an internationalized format for resolving the Arab-Israeli dispute. More typical was James Baker's famously irritated statement in 1990; he gave out the White House phone number and told the Israelis, "When you're serious about peace, call us."
  • Don't tie yourself to a timetable. Negotiators have shied away from calendar-specific goals, noting how often dates slip by with goals unfulfilled.
  • Don't choose leaders. Until now, American presidents have accepted Arab dictators as a given; the Bush administration (having already deposed the tyrants in Afghanistan and Iraq) undertook to sideline Yasser Arafat and replace him with his deputy Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen).
  • Don't involve the president until the endgame. Lower-ranking officials typically test the waters and clear the path before the president himself joins the fray. For the president personally to involve himself from the get-go, as is now the case, amounts to high-wire diplomacy without a net.

In all, President Bush has made "a radical break" from past U.S. policies, says the Washington Institute's Robert Satloff, an authority on American diplomacy.

Just as the Arab-Israeli theater has provided some of the peak and trough moments of recent presidencies, it could well leave its marks on this one.

Jimmy Carter's single finest moment was the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1978. Ronald Reagan's worst moment was withdrawing American troops from Lebanon in 1984. Bill Clinton enjoyed the triumph of the Oslo accord signing in 1993 and suffered signal failure with the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000.

The fate of "Israel and Palestine, living side by side, in peace and security," in short, can be expected profoundly to influence the course of George W. Bush's presidency.